Like most tireless volunteers, Whitney Bowerman is humble in her pursuits. Yet her friends and acquaintances describe her as a generous philanthropist, advocate, civic leader, volunteer extraordinaire and sometimes even “a crazy cat lady.” Regardless of how one labels it, Whitney’s impact in the community is easy to see, and speaks for itself.
Whitney started volunteering in middle school. She explains that her school had a community service component. As part of her coursework, she started volunteering at the University District Food Bank.
“I was immediately hooked for a number of reasons,” she says of her volunteerism. “One was that I love people and their stories – I’m fascinated by them and I had an opportunity to meet a whole range of people there.”
But the second reason is a little more complicated, and Whitney isn’t shy in sharing that she had a tumultuous upbringing. “When I would go volunteer, I felt like I had purpose, I felt like I mattered, I felt appreciated and I enjoyed it. Those were things I was not getting at home and so I continued to volunteer.”
And though her circumstances have changed, she hasn’t stopped showing up for others. Into adulthood, Whitney persists in making an impact in our community and she continuously inspires others to take action as well.
The Thurston County Food Bank is dear to Whitney’s heart, and the whole Bowerman family. They’ve been donating to the organization for the past 15 years. For the past six of those, Whitney brought the Thurston County Food Project to the Eastside Neighborhood where food is collected door to door, neighbor to neighbor, every other month – because as Whitney reminds us, “The holidays are the time of year when people donate to the food bank the most, but the reality is, people are hungry the rest of the 11.5 months of the year, too.”
The Thurston County Food Project is modeled after a food collection program out of Ashland, Oregon, and was brought to our area by CRANA Neighborhood resident, Mary Beth Cline. At Mary Beth’s urging, Whitney started the project in her own neighborhood and though she still collects food, she has recently passed off the organizational duties of the project to another inspired neighbor.
Whitney tells a story of another neighborhood under-taking and one that has likely had the largest impact on her current service work. In 2013, Whitney’s neighborhood was informed that a shelter was to be built just a few blocks from her house. For a myriad of reasons, she was at first opposed to the idea, citing that she suffered from NIMBY (Not in My Backyard) and was still caught up in an “othering” mindset which she broadly describes as interactions that are devoid of personal exchanges.
Whitney is data driven, so she began searching Google, “determined to find the smoking gun,” she says, that would keep the shelter out of her neighborhood.
She didn’t find one, and the shelter just celebrated its five-year anniversary. What she did find were nationwide issues that are nuanced, multifaceted and incredibly complex that caused her to shift her views. Through more community conversations, especially with Meg Martin, co-executive director of the Interfaith Works Homeless Services Program, Whitney recognized that there were needs she could help fulfill. In a complete about-face of everything she had been railing against, Whitney dove in to service work for the Interfaith Works Homeless Services Program and hasn’t yet come up for air.
“What I like about Whitney is how fluid she is,” says Linda Benthian Flannigan, who also volunteers with the program. “She has her opinions but is always open to learning from others. She really digs in and works hard to help those that struggle, which I admire, and I wish I had the time, intelligence and fortitude to do the same.”
Whitney’s been a steadfast volunteer with the Interfaith Works programs for the past five years now. In addition to serving on their Homeless Service Program’s Advisory Council, she and her family also supply a monthly meal. She is on the Events Committee for the Homeless Services Program, and is now heading up the Capital Campaign to help fund the shelter/permanent resident facility being built at 2828 Martin Way in a partnership between the City Of Olympia, Interfaith Works and the Low-Income Housing Institute.
Food security and housing are serious issues that Whitney works hard year-round to alleviate, but since she can’t magically solve all of the problems of our community, she and her husband, Luke Bowerman have found another way to spark joy.
Each December, they transform their property at 1515 10th Avenue into Oly Lightstravaganza. It’s a walk-through light display that has grown to 90,000 lights this year. It began in 2005 at the Bowermans’ former residence and has been at the current location since 2010. After creating a Facebook page in 2012, the display has really shined, lighting up our community in more ways than one. The display opens the same weekend every year, the Sunday after Thanksgiving.
In true Bowerman fashion, there is a service component to the display, as cash and non-perishable food is collected on-site and donated to the Thurston County Food Bank at the end of the season. Since Whitney began tracking the donations in 2012, 6,753 pounds of food have been donated, along with $10,893 dollars in cash.
Lucky visitors to the display will sometimes find the Cookie Shack open, and are welcome to a free cookie and a cup of cider while taking in the magic of the display. 15,086 cookies and 203 gallons of cider later, the Bowermans and the generosity of a few community members have made viewing the display while leaving a trail of cookie crumbs behind a holiday tradition. The Bowermans are grateful for any cookie and cider donations this time of year, so if you’d like to take part in the joyous giving, reach out to Whitney via her website and keep the cookie-giving tradition alive!
Whitney describes her nine-year-old, Poppy, as a cat lady before her time. “She knits all day, adores cats – she’s really an old soul.”
It was Poppy’s unfettering love of cats, coupled with Whitney’s service work, when the Bowerman’s found themselves last year with a household full of 18 cats. They adopted a stray that turned out to be pregnant and at the same time said yes to two half-feral, mama cats that had recently given birth. Knowing this would fulfill her daughter’s life-long dream of being surrounded by kittens, Whitney committed to raising and finding furever homes for the whole kitten-caboodle.
“Kitten therapy is real,” Whitney says. “It brings such great joy.” Since then, she’s taken on fostering more and more litters of kittens through Kitten Rescue of Mason County.
The family now has five resident cats of their own, and is currently fostering a mama with a litter of six. At six weeks of age, they are a raucous bunch, a bundle of fur tumbling all over the Bowermans living room.
“The 18 was really a lot for my husband,” Whitney says with a smile. “These cats will go back to the Rescue in a few weeks and after he recovers from that that – well, I’ll find some more feral homeless cats…”